A fingerprint scanner system has two basic jobs -- it needs to get an image of your finger, and it needs to determine whether the pattern of ridges and valleys in this image matches the pattern of ridges and valleys in pre-scanned images.
There are a number of different ways to get an image of somebody's finger. The most common methods today are optical scanning and capacitance scanning. Both types come up with the same sort of image, but they go about it in completely different ways.
The heart of an optical scanner is a charge coupled device (CCD), the same light sensor system used in digital cameras and camcorders. A CCD is simply an array of light-sensitive diodes called photosites, which generate an electrical signal in response to light photons. Each photosite records a pixel, a tiny dot representing the light that hit that spot. Collectively, the light and dark pixels form an image of the scanned scene (a finger, for example). Typically, an analog-to-digital converter in the scanner system processes the analog electrical signal to generate a digital representation of this image. See How Digital Cameras Work for details on CCDs and digital conversion.
The scanning process starts when you place your finger on a glass plate, and a CCD camera takes a picture. The scanner has its own light source, typically an array of light-emitting diodes, to illuminate the ridges of the finger. The CCD system actually generates an inverted image of the finger, with darker areas representing more reflected light (the ridges of the finger) and lighter areas representing less reflected light (the valleys between the ridges).
Before comparing the print to stored data, the scanner processor makes sure the CCD has captured a clear image. It checks the average pixel darkness, or the overall values in a small sample, and rejects the scan if the overall image is too dark or too light. If the image is rejected, the scanner adjusts the exposure time to let in more or less light, and then tries the scan again.
If the darkness level is adequate, the scanner system goes on to check the image definition (how sharp the fingerprint scan is). The processor looks at several straight lines moving horizontally and vertically across the image. If the fingerprint image has good definition, a line running perpendicular to the ridges will be made up of alternating sections of very dark pixels and very light pixels.
If the processor finds that the image is crisp and properly exposed, it proceeds to comparing the captured fingerprint with fingerprints on file. We'll look at this process in a minute, but first we'll examine the other major scanning technology, the capacitive scanner.